Image Credit: CORBIS-Bettmann
Clark Interviews Baldwin
In the summer of 1963, leading figures from African American communities, including psychologist Kenneth Clark and novelist James Baldwin, met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to discuss social and political concerns of African Americans, particularly the need to secure their rights as citizens and to defend the dignity of their humanity. These leaders attempted to explain to the attorney general why the current social and political conditions, and the apparent national ignorance or indifference about the slow pace of progress toward racial equality and social justice, made it necessary for them to organize a march on Washington.
The Kennedy administration, which was involved in a Cold War ideological battle with the Soviet Union over which political and economic system was better suited to create the conditions to liberate the soul of humanity, feared that images of civil rights protests, beamed around the world, would be a propaganda coup for the Soviets.
The Kennedy administration also feared that they would be forced to address the issue in congress, which could further divide the Democratic Party and prevent the administration from pushing through other legislative initiatives.
For their part, the Civil Rights leaders were determined to challenge the administration to do more than just talk about civil rights and racial equality.
By most accounts the meeting with the attorney general went badly. The advocates for civil rights said that Kennedy seemed completely unaware of conditions facing African Americans, which were 11% of the nation’s population. To his credit, Robert Kennedy, later grew and deepened his understanding of the experiences of racial minorities, and also of the poor, through direct physical and personal contact and by immersing himself in issues related to their social conditions.
The summer of 1963, however, was another matter. The attorney general was in no mood to learn about people whom he saw as being a political liability for his brother’s administration. The mood among those who met with Kennedy was one of frustration and disillusion. Following that meeting, Kenneth Clark interviewed James Baldwin in what has become an important historical artifact. The interview provides insight into the persistent American dilemma over the ideal of democracy in a society that was based upon a racial social and political hierarchy. The interview also provides insight into the contested nature of how one defines the American identity.
Today, 50 years later, many Americans believe that racial marginalization is a thing of the past; the nation has, after all, elected a black man as president. This clip should remind viewers that marginalization is not just a matter of the laws that once enforced formal practices of discrimination and racial segregation. Marginalization also occurs as a population remains on the periphery of the economy, and is exacerbated by a disparity in wealth, which is the legacy of economic marginalization.
This is not the kind of thing that can be rectified through high-profile symbolic images alone, nor can it be rectified over the course of less than two generations. Economic marginalization is a product of, and perpetuates, racial marginalization. Nowhere is this more evident than in the effects of the current “Great Recession.” The official rate of unemployment among African Americans consistently remains at more than twice that of whites, and this is particularly a problem facing African American males. While unemployment for white males, 20 years of age and older, is 6.8%, and for white women is 6.5%, the rate for black males is 14.3% and for black females is 12% according the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. The causes for these disparities are complex. The current trend in social research points to a combination of cultural and systemic, or structural factors. Nonetheless, the experiential outcome is that African Americans in general, and black males in particular, are pushed to the margins of society.
Questions of American Identity: “Who are we and what is to become of us?”
Back in 1963, in this interview, Baldwin begins by accepting the notion that the experiences of African Americans, huddled in Uptown, are not the experiences that one thinks of when one is searching for “the American narrative.” He quickly re-examines this assumption. The obverse side of the notion that one’s “outsider” narrative, is not authentically American, is to come to the realization that one’s status as an outsider may, in fact, be a quintessentially “American” experience.
Baldwin briefly forgets, but then remembers, that the Park Avenue he grew up on, “… is the American Park Avenue” after all.
The American experience was not only the experiences of people who lived in homogeneous and affluent white suburbs or Rockwellesque small towns in the Midwest; it could also be represented by the uprooted, the displaced, and the dispossessed — those who lived in a multiracial and polyglot communities in America’s teaming inner-cities. This re-conceptualization of American identity challenges listeners to take a closer look at how that identity could be defined.
In this clip Baldwin tells the story of how he came home from the first day of school and his mother asked him whether his teacher was “white or colored.” He replied that she was “a little bit colored and a little bit white.” This captures, for him, the “dilemma of the American Negro” who is not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually “a little bit white and a little bit colored.”
Growing up in American society is an experience of cultural, psychological, and intellectual hybridity. It suggests that the diverse cultures, religions, “races,” and ethnic groups that compose American society are now inextricably bound; yet there are those who insist on seeing people, whose social experiences are not like their own, as being “other,” as though they are exotic strangers, who are difficult to understand and are often to be feared. This is particularly true today, in terms of popular perceptions of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hispanics.
In any hybrid society and culture the inescapable questions are: “Who are we?” and “What will become of us?” These are questions that Zadie Smith poses in her essay “Speaking in Tongues.” Baldwin frames these same questions for mid-20th century African Americans this way: What is the role of black Americans in American society and what will the future of black Americans be?
Baldwin tapped into the blurring of racial and economic marginalization when he recounted how his father frequently lost his temper when Baldwin was growing up. He says he later understood that his father was angry because “part of his problem was that he couldn’t feed his kids.” Economic marginalization, particularly as it threatens a socially-constructed masculine identity built, in large part, on the notion of being able to provide for one’s family, leads to frustration. That frustration must eventually find an outlet.
A Moral and Existential Problem
Being forced to the margins of society is not only a problem for those on the margins; it is also an existential problem for society. It is a question of whether or not that society is morally fit to survive.
This moral fitness to survive cuts both ways, however, in Baldwin’s eyes. As early as 1963 he noted, with anxiety, what he called “The vanishing moral authority” in African American communities, making it ripe for self-destruction. He noted the skill with which The Nation of Islam (NOI), (not to be confused with the religion of Islam) skillfully manipulated the insecurities of black Americans, and eased their emotional and psychological pain by offering them a mythological history based on black supremacist demagoguery.
Baldwin points out that, by 1963, the religious-based moral authority within the African American community in the South was no longer operative in black communities in the North. He says that while Martin Luther King still had moral authority among most Southern blacks, he had “none whatsoever” among blacks in the North. Added to this was the fact that the fact that the old style of black leadership, consisting of people who could keep African Americans under control in exchange for gaining access to resources for black schools and other institutions, was no longer functional.
Young blacks, in the North and the South, were impatient for change and could no longer be suppressed. The effectiveness of demagogic movements was based precisely on their ability to tap into the anger and frustration of this rising generation, and to corroborate their day-to-day reality. The older leadership had left a gap that younger demagogues were more than competent to fill, by more accurately expressing the anger and frustrations of their constituency.
Baldwin pointed out that what the NOI offered was a “false promise,” that was morally bankrupt. The romanticism of Eurocentrism and white supremacy cannot, says Baldwin, be cured by the concept of black supremacy and an equally romantic Afrocentrism. Yet, Baldwin credits the NOI for creating an authentically grassroots movement; something that the mainstream civil rights movements failed to accomplish, in his opinion.
Baldwin notes that if the Federal government, and the FBI, were concerned about the rising influence of groups, such as the Nation of Islam, then their focus should not be on targeting these intolerant groups, but should be on the social, economic and political conditions that bred such intolerance, and made it appealing to the masses.
African Americans, in Baldwin’s opinion, faced an existential crisis — but so did the United States, itself. The problem of survival would no longer be a problem faced by African American alone: “By the time I was seventeen, you had done everything you could do to me. The problem now is, ‘How are you going to save yourselves?'” asks Baldwin.
Baldwin noted that white Americans had invented the mythological creature called the “Nigger,” whom they used to justify denying social, civic, and economic rights to black people. Baldwin was very clear that he, himself, was not this creature, whether Americans wanted him to be or not. But, after creating this monster — to loath and to fear — the psychological task for white Americans would now be to confront their need for the “Nigger” in the first place.
Baldwin says that Americans must ask themselves what role this image plays in their psyche; if white Americans invented such a creature, they must have had a need for it. Baldwin adds, that in the creation of this creature, and in behaving as if the creature was real, allowed white Americans to justify their own behavior — and indifference — that in any other context would be seen as being “monstrous” in itself. In so doing, it was the white Americans, Baldwin argues, who had become “moral monsters.”
Baldwin concludes that the existential crisis for America depends on its ability to confront the necessity for this dehumanized image of black men. Once again, for Baldwin, this is a question of being morally fit to survive. When Kenneth Clark attempts to summarize what Baldwin is saying Baldwin corrects him in order to make his meaning clear. Clark says, “I hope Americans will have the strength,” but Baldwin interrupts and corrects him, saying, “the moral strength.”
Clark continues, “…to answer that question,” but Baldwin interrupts and corrects him again, saying, “…to face that question.”
Baldwin was all-too familiar with the mythology of the American fix-it culture and American “know-how.” This is the idea that one can stand over any problem and operationalize it, as if it were a machine. But human beings and human experiences are not mechanical parts. Baldwin was asserting that the role of the “Nigger” in the American psyche was not a question to be answered, but a question to be confronted.
He realized that acknowledging, confronting, unpacking and deconstructing the need for such a creature would, itself, accomplish the dismantling of the psychology that led to its construction in the first place.
C. Matthew Hawkins
Also of Interest: An Overview of African American History